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Local Artists Live: Sunny Paulk
September 12, 2020; 10:00 AM–10:30 AM CDT
The upcoming featured artist on Local Artists Live is Sunny Paulk, a passionate, lifelong creator. A Montgomerian since the age of six, Sunny moved here from Ramer, Alabama. From her early years, she remembers spending countless hours making art at a little table or a kid’s easel. In elementary school she wrote and illustrated her own books after finishing assignments, and in church she drew cartoons about family pets on the tithing envelopes. She recalls, “Well into my teens any flat surface around me was covered in drawings!”
Sunny credits her parents for guiding her path into the arts—her mom always kept art supplies lying around to be naturally picked up with ease, and her dad encouraged her interest in studying art. “I loved drawing horses when I was little, and one day my dad got an encyclopedia down from the shelf (this was before the internet) and showed me pictures of horses and how their bones and muscles shaped their forms. I became obsessed with trying to replicate the realistic forms of things in drawings and paintings.”
When Sunny was in high school, Montgomery did not yet have a full-time magnet school, so she split time between Jefferson Davis High School and Carver Creative and Performing Arts Center. In college, Sunny studied studio art at Auburn University at Montgomery and got involved in the school newspaper, learning layout design. Her interwoven artistic paths eventually led her into a career of graphic design at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In adulthood, Sunny’s art has evolved to reflect personal growth while simultaneously sharing the strength and beauty of others through vivid imagery. One of her favorite art-related life moments was the 2015 unveiling of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March mural downtown—the city’s first publicly commissioned mural, which was designed and painted by Sunny with assistance from artist Corey Spearman. Surrounded by her entire family, coworkers, friends, and Montgomery city workers and members of the community, celebrating such a momentous occasion served as a testament to Sunny’s talents as an artist and her commitment to Montgomery’s legacy and positive growth towards the future.
Read on below to learn more about Sunny’s passion for art and her dedication to this city and her desire to honor its people, and be sure to tune in this Saturday, September 12 at 10 AM on the MMFA’s Instagram, @MontgomeryMFA.
Left: Sunny Paulk, Stay Focused (and Mind Your Business), acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 36″
This program is part of the series:
Meet the Artist
What is your favorite thing about living in the South?
The trees. Any time I return from a trip outside the South it is the trees I’m most excited to see; the things that make me really feel like I’m home.
What excites you most about the growth of Montgomery’s art scene?
So many things excite me about the growth of Montgomery’s art scene. Having lived here most of my life feeling no connection with other artists, nor knowing where to find them, it is truly wonderful to now have such a close community of talented friends to share inspiration and energy with. And that the upcoming generation of artists have opportunities and resources that we didn’t used to have. We are so fortunate to have so many amazing artists in the area, and I’m thrilled that we are able to celebrate and uplift each other, even in quarantine.
What is your favorite work of art from the MMFA’s collection, and what specifically about the artwork speaks strongly to you?
I have spent many hours of my life in the Young Gallery of MMFA as I have always been drawn to contemporary art. There are so many fantastic pieces in the collection, but my all-time favorites are Mutter und Tochter by Gary Chapman and Red Fish by Leonard Koscianski. I just love the strength portrayed in Chapman’s portrait, and I love the electric colors in Koscianski’s fish. Both of these influenced my desire to paint large pieces.
What piece of art that you have created is your favorite, and why?
That’s difficult to say since usually, my favorite piece is whatever I just finished. But one painting I did has a pretty cool story. It’s a portrait I painted of Paula Modersohn-Becker, a German modernist artist of the late 1800s-early 1900s, and it was so ghostly and eerie I just fell in love with it. At the time I was selling art at Gwen’s Southern Spa in the Mulberry District, so I took her over there to try to sell it. Well, the spa got broken into one night, and in addition to checkbooks and financial information being stolen, the painting of Paula was, too. When the police visited a suspect’s house a couple of weeks later, they were able to make an arrest because the portrait of Paula was hanging on their wall. How wild is that?! When Gwen called me to the spa to pick up the painting she said, “I think Paula wants to be at home with you.” And she’s been on my mantle guarding me and my house ever since.
Do you have an all-time favorite work of art, and have you seen it in person? If you have, how did you feel in the moment?
There are so many amazing works of art I’ve been lucky enough to see in person throughout my life. One that really stands out in my mind from recent years was Brilliantly Endowed by Barkley Hendricks, painted in 1977. I had never seen his work until I went to the Brooklyn Museum in New York a couple of years ago, and I was just floored. His large, dramatic, brightly colored portraits of everyday people that were in his life are just stunning. And they actually inspired me to paint my most recent portrait series of friends. I was taken with Brilliantly Endowed in particular because I had never seen anything like it. It is a self-portrait of him standing in the nude, staring straight at the viewer, wearing only a hat, wristbands, basketball socks, and tennis shoes. I literally laughed out loud when I saw it; what a clever way to slap traditional portrait painting in the face, I thought. And it’s just masterfully executed. I’m sure I’ll remember it forever.
Tell us about your most preferred place to be on Earth. What role, if any, has the energy of that place helped shape you as an artist?
The land I grew up on in Ramer is definitely my favorite place. My parents have since moved back there and I love to visit, though sadly there hasn’t been much of that during the pandemic. One of my brothers is only a year younger than me, so we used to spend hours exploring the woods and just being in nature. It’s very quiet out in the country, and I think that growing up in a place like that is why I can sit and be still for long periods of time. Which is helpful when I’m working on a piece!
What drives your creativity?
My drive to create is something I have to constantly work on. I love to solve creative problems, which in my job as a graphic designer I get to do every day, so when I’m at home I have to treat painting as a job as well in order to show up. The best advice I’ve gotten in recent years was from [local artist] DaNeal Eberly, who suggested I keep “office hours.” So, I can do house and yard things on Saturday, but on Sunday afternoon I have to do something related to art. Now, sometimes that means I’m answering questions for a Museum talk and not painting, per se. But I still consider things like spending time on self-promotion or writing a proposal for a project, to be part of the creative process.
What is your preferred medium?
Acrylic for paint, charcoal for drawing.
Do you listen to any particular music when you create?
I’ve actually found myself listening to podcasts instead of music the last few years. For a while, I listened to political ones, but when that got to be a little much I switched to inspirational ones like Tara Brach and Brené Brown. Which, around mid-pandemic got to be a little much as well, so now I’m listening to a “Scrubs” podcast because I really need the laughs.
What advice would you give to beginning artists?
Art is not for the faint of heart. Art is fun but it is hard, and being an artist is hard. But you have to keep pushing. You have to believe in yourself. Because art is one of the most powerful forces in the world and being a vessel for it is a great privilege and responsibility. You have to be okay with some people not liking what you do. And you have to be okay with making mistakes because that’s how we learn and grow. And if you think you’ve mastered your art and have nothing else to learn, then you’re doing it wrong.